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2 Feb 2024

Caring for industrial collections, part 3: historical soundscapes

Written by Lesley Scott ACR, Regional Conservator (Edinburgh & East) and Alice Law, Bute Intern in Collections Care and Historic Interiors  
Longcase clocks in the Lucas Clocks workshop in Edinburgh
In the third of our four-part series about our industrial collections, we explore how we maintain dynamic objects – those items with mechanical or moving parts that make the object work, playable or enable a sound – and the challenges of keeping them functional. 

Walking around a Trust property, you may have heard the gentle chiming of a clock, or music coming from a piano that visitors are invited to play – sounds that would have been experienced by the former occupants as well as visitors to the property. These everyday objects undoubtedly add to the ambience. To ensure the clocks are wound and pianos are kept tuned, an additional level of knowledge is required so that their interacting parts function and we can continue to enjoy their original purpose.

If a clock cannot be heard chiming or a piano cannot be played, are they fulfilling their original intention? And when these objects are historical pieces, how do we best ensure that we protect the original parts, components and structures for future generations, especially when some collection items are already hundreds of years old?

Moving objects – or, as we refer to them in a heritage setting, dynamic objects – require a completely different care and conservation approach from our static collection pieces. If their original purpose is to be continued, then parts of them will invariably wear out and require maintenance. This might mean some intervention, or even the replacement of components, to keep mechanisms running. This raises fundamental considerations. On the one hand, we need to retain the historical integrity of the object and limit any adaptation. But at the same time, we do not want to allow these objects to fall silent or stop moving or being played; we want to preserve the intention of the piece and share its stories with our audiences.

We also understand that in many cases, throughout their lifetime, clocks or musical instruments will have been adapted or repaired. Therefore, decisions regarding any intervention are always approached on a case-by-case basis, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

In Edinburgh & East properties, we have been gradually checking all our clocks, from longcase to mantel, to ensure they become functional again after a static period during lockdown.

Read Lauren’s story about when time stood still

It was important they were examined first, to ensure they could run problem-free, before we started winding them again. Lucas Marijnissen is a trained clock maker, who carries out the individual maintenance programme for each clock in the Trust’s care. Any repairs or considerations for smooth running, cleaning and re-oiling have been recorded over the years. Each clock has a file that documents all of the work undertaken on it, as well as its quirks, measurements and timings of its movement. Lucas advises property teams on how to look after each clock, showing them how to wind it or discussing when they might need specialist intervention.

Bute-funded Icon Conservation Intern Alice is working with the Collections Conservation & Management team at the Trust to understand our approach in preserving our dynamic collections. After packing up a longcase clock’s mechanism from Hill of Tarvit that wasn’t striking properly, and sending it to Edinburgh for inspection, she followed up with a site visit to the Lucas Clocks workshop.

At the Lucas Clocks workshop, Alice discussed the conservation approach to worn or damaged original parts. She was shown an example of a clock barrel that normally holds a spring, which had developed stress cracks. In order to stop the cracks from spreading, assistant clock specialist Angus had sympathetically drilled a hole at the end of the crack to prevent it running, filled it with another piece of metal, and then carefully filed it to blend in with the original surface so it could be placed back into the clock’s mechanism.

Due to the tension the piece would be under, this approach provides the best solution. Angus concluded that, although it would be far easier (and would save time) to replace the entire part with a new piece, by making these sensitive repairs he has not only retained the original component, but also sustainably preserved the history of the object.

“Putting in a new component part is much easier than conserving what is there, but then you lose the history of the original maker.”
Assistant clock specialist

Alice continued her studio visits to meet with Jonathan Santa Maria Bouquet, Senior Conservator at the University of Edinburgh, at St Cecilia’s Hall. This is Scotland’s oldest purpose-built concert hall and is home to the university’s musical instrument collection. Jonathan is an expert in the conservation and care of historic musical instruments, and he carries out tuning and advises on any work required for the pianos at our Edinburgh properties.

Musical instruments are dynamic objects and, similarly to a clock, will need parts replaced if they are to be used or played. If they are structurally stable and well-maintained, our historical harpsichords or violins can still be played; the plectra or strings just need to be replaced as they wear. St Cecilia’s is a playing collection and a research collection, with around 500–700 instruments that can still be played. However, the museum stresses balance: not every instrument is played; the instruments that are played are not played all the time.

Conservators of dynamic objects that are still used or played have to carefully strike a balance in their work. They make sure that any necessary repairs are done as sensitively as they can, using traditional materials to keep replacements and repairs as close to the original as possible, and they carefully document those processes. Cow gut is still used to suspend the weights of a clock, and sheep gut is used for the strings of instruments like violins. Quills from crow and gannet feathers are still used for plectra in the harpsichords in St Cecilia’s. Bought for the purpose or collected from East Lothian beaches, the feathers are shaped and used as they would have been traditionally.

Jonathan showed Alice a violin in his workshop that was being prepared to be played at an event. The museum keeps the strings at slight tension, even when the object is not being played, to prevent any warping or movement of the loose soundboard inside, which could fundamentally change the sound of the instrument.

As with all collections, stable environmental conditions are also very important for the longevity of musical instruments, especially those with tensioned strings or made with organic materials that expand and contract as the moisture in the air fluctuates. Alice took a tour of the museum’s climatically controlled display areas, talking about the evolution of harpsichords, spinets and pianos with Jonathan and the myriad of issues in continuing their preservation. He concluded that, as instruments and our environments invariably change through the ages, hearing a period instrument played now does not guarantee an exact reproduction of the sound that someone would have heard originally.

In this blog we’ve explored a small snapshot of some of the work undertaken by specialist dynamic object conservators, who help us to care for and maintain the use of some of our complex dynamic objects at the Trust. The conservation and repair of dynamic objects is not straightforward; even collections that are preserved in a static state will change and deteriorate over time. All that our preventive conservation practices can do is slow down or minimise the risks to that change.

Interacting with these objects amplifies the stories we tell at our places and helps our understanding of the past. Hearing and seeing these objects still in use can enrich a view of the past.

“[In Conservation], we are preserving heritage for future generations, but you could argue that we are also a future generation. Whether we do or don’t use or play an object, who are we actually preserving for?”
Lesley Scott and Alice Law

Our conservation interns greatly benefit from visiting the specialist conservators who help us maintain our clocks and musical instruments. They can understand the conservators’ remedial approach and how the Trust focuses on practices that enhance visitors’ interaction and experience.

With fewer and fewer conservators specialising in industrial and dynamic objects, what is certain is that the people who care for these objects are highly skilled and incredibly passionate about what they do. They have knowledge beyond the conservation theory, stretching into engineering, clock-making, music theory and instrument-making, as well as simply having an ear for pitch. Dynamic objects are not just cared for by conservators but by craftspeople, who bring invaluable skills to heritage.

What we do: Collections

Find out more about the 300,000+ objects we care for in over 50 of our properties.